Translation, Please: Refugees and Asylum

August 18, 2019

RefugeesOver the past decade, the number of people applying for asylum in the U.S. has skyrocketed, driven by people fleeing Central America. What exactly does it mean to seek asylum?

In the ten-year period from 2008 to 2018, the number of people apprehended at our southern border who said they feared returning home has increased by nearly 2,000 percent. In the past two years alone, it has doubled. The influx in migrants from Central America in particular has become a focus for the immigration debate, as thousands of people flee violence and poverty in their home countries to seek asylum in the U.S.

The most obvious consequence of this increase is the terrible condition of detention facilities at the border. Apart from any charges of cruelty and harsh treatment of refugees by border patrol authorities, these facilities were built to house single men and women trying to cross the border to work in the U.S. illegally, not to house tens of thousands of families seeking asylum.

A second consequence is a renewed debate over who does and does not qualify for asylum. Overall, in fiscal year 2017, 26,568 people were granted asylum in the U.S., including 8,480 from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – a region referred to as the Northern Triangle. The president has sought to limit the number of people seeking asylum, saying that many of them are exploiting loopholes in U.S. immigration law and that many of their claims are fraudulent. In 2018, the number of people whose asylum cases were denied rose nearly 50 percent over the previous year.

Here is some background information on the issues and the current controversy.


What is the difference between a refugee and someone who is seeking asylum?
The main difference between these two categories of migrants is where they are when they apply for asylum. Refugees are still outside the U.S. when they apply. Asylum seekers are already in the U.S. or at a port of entry. In both cases, the standard for being granted asylum (described below) is the same.

What is asylum and how does a person claim it?
The New York Times has offered a good explanation: “Asylum is a legal process by which people fleeing persecution in their home country may seek to live in safety in the United States. International treaties and federal law require the government to evaluate a claim for asylum from anyone who enters the United States, whether that person arrives legally, through a port of entry, or illegally by crossing the border and being apprehended.”

U.S. law allows anyone from another country to seek asylum. To do so, a person must demonstrate that they fled their home country based on a well-founded fear of persecution based on their religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. A person has one year from their arrival in the U.S. to apply for asylum.

Applicants must provide “detailed and specific” accounts of persecution or fear of persecution, undergo background and security checks, and be fingerprinted and photographed. They are then scheduled for an interview with an asylum officer, where they bring documents like birth and marriage certificates, along with a lawyer or translator if they can afford to pay for their services or find someone to volunteer. Decisions can take anywhere from six months to several years, depending on the details of an individual’s case.

Where are asylum seekers coming from, and why?
In 2018, migrants from China, Venezuela, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico made the most asylum claims in the U.S. Migrants from China are largely political or religious dissidents. Migrants from Venezuela are fleeing decades of government corruption and mismanagement that have culminated in severe food and medicine shortages.

Migrants from the four Central American nations on the list together made up 80 percent of all asylum claims in 2018, and are the focus of the current political controversy in the U.S. People from Central America who seek asylum are fleeing gang-related violence, extreme poverty, and hunger after years of drought and crop failure. These countries are among the most dangerous in the world, particularly El Salvador, where the murder rate in 2015 reached 103 per hundred thousand.

Changes in U.S. Policy
The Trump administration has tried to make several changes to the rules for granting asylum in the U.S. with the goal of reducing the number of migrants who try to enter.

Most recently, the administration struck a deal with the government of Guatemala to institute what it called the Safe Third Country rule. This rule requires people who pass through a third country en route to the U.S. to first seek asylum in that country. Previously, the U.S. and Mexican governments announced a deal in which Mexico agreed to strengthen enforcement of its immigration laws, and to allow Central American migrants to remain in Mexico while their asylum claims are pending in the U.S.

Earlier this year in April, the administration said it would jail and deny bail to asylum seekers who crossed the border without permission, a move that was later blocked as a violation of federal law. In November 2018, the president issued an executive order that would make people who illegally crossed the border ineligible for asylum. That order also was struck down.

Although crime in Central America has begun to decline, people in the region continue to flee to the U.S. in large numbers, and experts say that’s unlikely to stop anytime soon. That means the treatment of people seeking asylum at our southern border will continue to be a flashpoint for years to come, increasing the pressure on Congress and the president to make decisions on asylum and on other immigration issues that are long overdue.


Learn More
To further explore information on refugees and asylum seekers, check out these resources:

Crime Is Down: The violence in Central America has shown signs of abating, but will it stem from the flow of migrants from the region? – via The Economist

A Broken System: David Frum argues that people are gaming the asylum system, and it must be substantially reformed if we want to stop the migrant crisis – via The Atlantic

Can Foreign Aid Help? One researcher says that $2 billion in foreign aid has gone to Central America in recent years but migration has increased. Aid can help, but it must be smart and targeted – via The Washington Post

Yearbook of Immigration Statistics: The federal government publishes details on how many foreign nationals gain lawful permanent residence in the U.S. each year. In the most recent edition, tables 16-19 paint a picture of who is seeking asylum – via Department of Homeland Security

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This article originally appeared in the August 18, 2019 issue of Wide Angle, our regular newsletter designed, we hope, to inform rather than inflame. Each edition brings you original articles by Common Ground Solutions, a quiz, and a round-up of news items — from across the political spectrum — that we think are worth reading. We make a special effort to cover good work being done to bridge political divides, and to offer constructive information on ways our readers can engage in the political process and make a difference on issues that matter to them.

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